Clothing and Its Connotations in Postmodern American Fiction

A Discussion of Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho", William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" and Nicholson Baker's "A Box of Matches"

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

82 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Clothing in American Psycho
2.1. Fashion
2.1.1. The Language of Fashion
2.1.2. The Emptiness of Fashion
2.2. Violence
2.2.1. Torturing the Poor
2.2.2. Destroying the Mirror Image
2.2.3. Asserting Masculinity
2.3. Clothing as a Motif in American Psycho

3. Clothing in Pattern Recognition
3.1. Culture
3.1.1. Culture Industry
3.1.2. Popular Culture
3.2. Creativity
3.2.1. Ambiguity
3.2.2. Recontextualization
3.2.3. Virtual Clothing
3.3. Clothing as a Motif in Pattern Recognition

4. Clothing in A Box of Matches
4.1. Everyday Life
4.1.1. Writing About Everyday Life
4.1.2. Objects in Everyday Life
4.2. Enthusiasm
4.2.1. Appearances
4.2.2. Learning Experiences
4.2.3. Accomplishments
4.3. Clothing as a Motif in A Box of Matches

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Clothes, as Diana Crane establishes in her book Fashion and Its Social Agendas, “are a major tool in the construction of identity, offering a wide range of choices for the expression of lifestyles or subcultural identities” (171). However: “Social scientists have not articulated a definitive interpretation of how a person constructs social identity in contemporary society” (Crane 2). This might be one of the reasons why clothing has found its way into fiction, contributing to the characterization of protagonists and fictional world alike. The versatility of postmodern texts makes the analysis of clothing in connection with the process of constructing identities especially rewarding.

The term postmodernism[1] is hard to define. In the preface to his book The Illusions of Postmodernism Terry Eagleton makes a distinction between postmodernism and postmodernity:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodernity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. (vii)

Postmodernism, then, reflects these notions in what Eagleton calls “a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience” (vii). Although his definition is not in favor of postmodernism, it does indicate how diverse subject-matter as well as style in postmodern texts can be. In other words, “anything goes” (Mayer 543).

Christopher Butler, in Postmodernism. A Very Short Introduction, explains the implications postmodernism entails for the genre of the novel: “The postmodernist novel doesn’t try to create a sustained realist illusion: it displays itself as open to all those illusory tricks of stereotype and narrative manipulation, and of multiple interpretation in all its contradiction and inconsistency, which are central to postmodernist thought” (73). The topics addressed in postmodern fiction are as differentiated as the interpretations they invite. However, according to Butler, the writers associated with postmodernism usually have a few characteristics in common: “Postmodernists are by and large pessimists . . . and the beliefs and the art they inspire are often negative rather than constructive” (114). Their pessimism has its roots in “assumptions about the inevitability of class or psychological conflict” (Butler 116). These conflicts are often connected with consumerism: “Mass affluence is not good, because when people have what they basically need, advertising and marketing move into the gap to synthesize and define our (materialist) values for us, and those who do need are the more easily forgotten” (Butler 114-15). Acquiring ever more commodities thus becomes more important than taking care of the less fortunate. Clothing is often regarded as one of the aspects of consumerism. In my thesis I will focus on this motif, thereby including critical views on consumerism in postmodern novels.

Clothing should not be underestimated in its relevance for interpreting fictional texts, as Clair Hughes confirms in her book Dressed in Fiction: “First of all, references to dress for both reader and writer contribute to the ‘reality effect’: they lend tangibility and visibility to character and context” (2). Thus clothing reveals not only characteristics of the protagonists and antagonists who are dressed in a certain way but also about the text as a whole.

The aim of this thesis is to investigate the connotations of clothing in three American postmodern novels: American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis (*1964), Pattern Recognition (2003) by William Gibson (*1948), and A Box of Matches (2003) by Nicholson Baker (*1957). The three novels present different sides of American culture. American Psycho mainly deals with young urban professionals on Wall Street. The protagonist Patrick Bateman displays a profound knowledge of fashion rules, an unquestioning immersion in consumerism, and an overwhelming urge to commit violent acts. In Pattern Recognition main character Cayce Pollard is unusually sensitive to fashion, which results in severe allergies on the one hand but on the other hand enables her to contribute to the development of new trends. As opposed to the first two novels first-person narrator Emmett in A Box of Matches is not interested in fashion as such. His pleasure in clothes is characterized by his playful handling of single pieces of clothing that provides them with meaning.

The different relationships of the protagonists to clothing constitute the reason for discussing these three novels. Bateman embraces fashion wholeheartedly, Cayce’s behavior is marked by ambiguity, and Emmett displays a disinterest in fashion. Their conduct does not only allow an insight into their characters, it also defines their approach to consumerism:

Clothing, as one of the most visible forms of consumption, performs a major role in the social construction of identity. Clothing choices provide an excellent field for studying how people interpret a specific form of culture for their own purposes, one that includes strong norms about appropriate appearances at a particular point in time (otherwise known as fashion) as well as an extraordinarily rich variety of alternatives. (Crane 1)

The three characters have indeed very different assumptions about what is appropriate attire and, even more importantly, why. Their outfits reflect the circles they move in, which represent diverse aspects of contemporary society – Bateman is associated with the upper class of Manhattan’s financial district, Cayce maneuvers through the maze of fashion trends and marketing, and Emmett is content with his ordinary life in a small town. These aspects, however, mirror the complexity of people’s intentions behind clothing. Thus, the three novels contribute to a realistic picture of the diversity in the world of clothing and fashion:

In “consumer” fashion, which has replaced class fashion, there is much more stylistic diversity and much less consensus about what is “in fashion” at a particular time. Instead of being oriented toward the tastes of social elites, consumer fashion incorporates tastes and concerns of social groups at all social class levels. . . . Different styles have different publics; there are no precise rules about what is to be worn and no agreement about a fashion ideal that represents contemporary culture. (Crane 134-135)

The novels deal with the various manifestations clothing finds in the lives of the protagonists. American Psycho revolves around elitist tastes and prestigious brands. Pattern Recognition, although expensive labels are frequently mentioned, pays attention to the emergence of fashion trends at street level. A Box of Matches, finally, explores the functionality as well as the aesthetics inherent in ordinary pieces of clothing.

In my thesis I will interpret the different approaches to clothing in the three novels against a theoretical background which is to be established in the first part of each chapter. The second part of each chapter consists of a close reading section in which I will apply these theories to scenes from the primary texts. In the conclusion I will compare my interpretations of each chapter in order to present a comprehensive result as to which connotations clothing has in the previously discussed novels.

It is evident from my remarks so far that no unifying picture of clothing in postmodern American fiction can be expected. As Crane states: “Contemporary fashion is . . . ambiguous and multifaceted, in keeping with the highly fragmented nature of contemporary postindustrial societies. . . . Clothing choices reflect the complexity of the ways we perceive our connections to one another in contemporary societies” (6). However, therein lies the appeal of doing research in this field.

2. Clothing in American Psycho

The novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is about the yuppie Patrick Bateman. He is the narrator of his own story, and he becomes increasingly unreliable in telling his tale, as I will point out in the following sections. Bateman is obsessed with consumerism. He does not only consume clothes by illustrious designers or furniture and appliances from expensive brands, he also “consumes” people, especially women whom he rapes, tortures, and kills. Bateman stands for a consumerism without boundaries. For him, wearing the right clothes is more important than having meaningful relationships with other people.

Clothes play an important role in American Psycho. In fact, the novel partly reads like a reference guide for what was in fashion in certain circles during the late 1980s. But Ellis does not mean to amuse or bore his readers with Bateman’s endless descriptions of outfits and name-droppings of designers and brands. What he wants to achieve with his controversial and highly debated novel[2] is a critique of consumerism, as I will show in this chapter. Let me say, however, that in a discussion about the connotations of clothing in American postmodern fiction his work cannot be missing.

The first part of this chapter deals with the theoretical background important for my interpretation of American Psycho. I will apply Roland Barthes’ study Système de la Mode to the way Bateman talks about fashion. In his work Barthes analyzes the language in fashion magazines by distinguishing a connection between clothing and world from a connection between clothing and fashion. The latter is more prominent in Ellis’s novel, emphasizing the fact that fashion is essentially empty. This leads to a reading of Hanjo Berressem’s essay “Emotions Flattened and Scattered: ‘Borderline Syndromes’ and ‘Multiple Personality Disorders’ in Contemporary American Fiction” in which he suggests that Bateman suffers from a pathological personality disorder, making it impossible for him to create an inner self. In the second part of the chapter I will do a close reading of several scenes in American Psycho, thereby showing how references to clothing are closely linked with Bateman’s crimes.

2.1. Fashion

Clothing in American Psycho is characterized by a lack of connection between fashion and functionality. The outfits Patrick Bateman and his friends wear are not so much distinguished by their usefulness as by their fashionableness. This detachment does not only have an influence on Bateman’s fashion style but also on his personality.

2.1.1. The Language of Fashion

Patrick Bateman constantly talks about clothes. In fact, one of the most obvious features in the novel are the endless descriptions of clothing. Not only the clothes Bateman himself wears but those of all new or newly appeared characters are described in minute detail. These descriptions are fact-based; the narrator does not offer any kind of judgment, at least when the clothes of his peers are concerned. The case is different when he talks about the clothes of homeless people, which I will discuss at a later point[3]. For now, though, I will concentrate on the way Bateman talks about fashion. First of all, instead of actually conveying an image of his or his friends’ clothes he usually just mentions the clothes’ labels: “Price is wearing a six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna, a cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar, a Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rossetti” (Ellis 4-5). Additionally, he functions as a constant reference guide for his friends in matters of clothing. When someone asks him how a vest ought to be worn, he answers: “It should peek just above the waist button of the suit jacket. Now if too much of the vest appears, it’ll give the suit a tight, constricted look that you don’t want” (Ellis 87). The way he talks changes when fashion becomes the topic of a conversation. He does not use colloquial language anymore but appears to be a lifestyle encyclopedia, able to open at any page to provide his friends with advice.

Bateman’s comments on and descriptions of clothes are so detached from his surroundings that they sound like he has taken them out of a fashion magazine. Roland Barthes’ book Système de la Mode deals with the employment of language in fashion magazines. Whereas Barthes talks about real fashion magazines, however, Patrick Bateman’s world is fictitious. Nevertheless, reading Barthes contributes to understanding Bateman’s way of describing clothes.

Barthes makes an important distinction between the ways descriptions in fashion magazines work. He identifies two pairs of commutative classes: an “ensemble A,” consisting of the terms clothing and world, and an “ensemble B,” consisting of the terms clothing and fashion (cf. Barthes 33-34). Barthes borrows the term commutation from the field of linguistics: “Soit une structure donnée globalement. L’epreuve de commutation consiste à observer si cette variation introduit un changement dans la lecture ou l’usage de la structure donnée . . .” (Barthes 30). In “ensembles A” both terms are explicit. That means there are references to both clothing and world. A statement like “this cotton summer dress is the perfect outfit for a picnic in the country” makes references to both clothing (the cotton summer dress) and world or occasion (a picnic in the country). One could exchange one term in this structure for another, in the manner of the linguistic commutation test: “This linen suit is the perfect outfit for a picnic in the country.” But this statement does not work because “une variation du vêtement s’accompagne fatalement d’une variation du monde et réciproquement” (Barthes 31). In “ensembles A” an indefinite number of signifiers and signified[4] are possible, the signifiers being types of clothing and the signified the occasions where the clothing can be worn. Furthermore, “ensembles A” are arbitrary. One outfit suits one occasion only because the magazine says so, not out of any natural reason.

In “ensembles B” only the term clothing is explicit, while the term fashion is implicit. Clothing described in a fashion magazine is always fashionable. Consequently, this does not have to be made explicit. A phrase like “a pair of tight jeans combined with high heels,” if found in a fashion magazine, means that this combination is fashionable, otherwise it would not be in the magazine. The magazine does not have to explicitly advise its readers against exchanging the pair of high heels for a pair of flip-flops, which in Barthes’ terms would be another commutation test because by reading between the lines they understand this would be unfashionable: “Il s’ensuit qu’en faisant varier certains elements du vêtement décrit, on determine une variation concomitante dans la Mode; et comme la Mode est un tout normatif, une loi sans degré, faire varier la Mode, c’est en sortir . . .” (Barthes 32). “Ensembles B,” like “ensembles A,” consist of an indefinite number of signifiers (once again clothing) but only one signified (fashion). “Ensembles B” are also arbitrary.

To better understand the difference between “ensembles A” and “ensembles B” in American Psycho, I will look more closely at a few scenes with references to the weather or to temperature. Since all that matters is the clothes’ fashionableness, their suitableness for the outside world is almost never discussed. This is partly because Bateman and his friends are not very much affected by the weather outside. They spend their days in their apartments and offices, in fitness clubs and restaurants, and they use taxis or limousines to get from place to place. So mostly Bateman can talk about clothing as only referring to itself. In two scenes, however, Bateman’s descriptions do not only refer to the fashionableness of the described outfits, like a pattern or a label, they also put the outfits into place. Bateman’s descriptions actually connect them to the world, so that the connotation of a piece of clothing becomes visible: “la rhétorique ouvre la Mode au monde; à travers elle, le monde est présent dans la Mode, non plus seulement comme puissance humaine productrice d’un sens abstrait, mais comme ensemble de «raisons», c’est-à-dire comme idéologie . . .” (Barthes 278). To go grocery shopping on a rainy day Bateman dresses according to the weather outside. He wears the following: “blue jeans by Armani, a white Polo shirt, an Armani sport coat, no tie, . . . since it’s drizzling, a pair of black waterproof lace-ups by Manolo Blahnik” (Ellis 161). In another scene at Evelyn’s Christmas party Bateman complains about the women’s clothes. He feels “vaguely depressed by what most of the women are wearing – pullover cashmere sweaters, blazers, long wool skirts, corduroy dresses, turtlenecks. Cold weather. No hardbodies” (Ellis 184). To prove that these statements are indeed “ensembles A,” it helps to arrange them in a way one could find in a fashion magazine: “The perfect shoes to wear for grocery shopping on a rainy day are a pair of black waterproof lace-ups by Manolo Blahnik.” Or: “A corduroy dress for your best friend’s Christmas party.” Here, Bateman explicitly draws attention to certain occasions, thereby connecting the described outfits to the world.

I also want to mention two scenes in which Bateman actually derives comfort from clothes. His well-founded knowledge of clothing helps him to make uncomfortable situations bearable. This occurs when Detective Kimball comes to see him in his office. Bateman does not receive him immediately but pretends to be on the phone with a friend, giving him advice in matters of clothing: “There are definitely dos and don’ts, good buddy, of wearing a bold-striped shirt. A bold-striped shirt calls for solid-colored or discreetly patterned suits and ties. . . .” (Ellis 267). This gives him time to procrastinate, to check out Kimball, to master the situation. It also allows him to show off his profound knowledge of fashion rules. In another scene, when being followed around by Luis Carruthers at Barney’s, Bateman chooses clothes as an escape from Luis’s attempts to flirt with him: “I breathe in, calming myself by checking the price tag on an Armani button-up sweater” (Ellis 292). The fact that he recognizes the sweater as an “Armani button-up” one grants him relief in an unpleasant situation. He might be followed around by a “faggot” (Ellis 295), but he is still able to recognize an Armani sweater. These two scenes are “ensembles A” in a wider sense because it is not only fashion that matters here but also the respective situations.

Barthes has noted the dilemma of fashion in magazines. It is caught between only referring to itself and not being able to completely deny connections to the world:

la Mode doit projecter le modèle aristocratique, source de son prestige: c’est la Mode pure; mais elle doit en même temps représenter, d’une manière euphorique, le monde de ses consommateurs, en transformant les fonctions intramondaines en signes (travail, sport, vacances, saisons, cérémonies): c’est la Mode naturalisée, dont les signifiés sont nommés. D’où son statut ambigu: elle signifie le monde et se signifie elle-même, se construit ici comme programme de conduite et là comme spectacle luxueux. (Barthes 290)

This can be seen in American Psycho as well. Although Patrick Bateman does occasionally refer to events or situations in the world, the “spectacle luxueux,” the luxurious spectacle of fashion is of tremendous importance to him. Consequently, in Bateman’s discourse on fashion, “ensembles B” take up much more room than “ensembles A.” In fact, “ensembles A” are restricted to little more than the few I have just mentioned, whereas “ensembles B” appear in almost every chapter. The readers can be sure that the clothes Bateman describes are of the latest fashion, because, just as in Barthes’ “ensembles B,” clothes are explicit but their fashionableness is implicit. Most of the time there are no references to the outside world or any comments on the choice of clothing. The mere fact that Bateman mentions the clothes of his friends and associates is sufficient proof for their fashionableness. The following example is characteristic of Bateman’s elitist understanding of fashion. Meeting up with two friends in a bar, Bateman almost instantly describes the clothes they are all wearing:

Hamlin is wearing a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren. Reeves is wearing a six-button double-breasted suit by Christian Dior, a cotton shirt, a patterned silk tie by Claiborne, perforated cap-toe leather lace-ups by Allen-Edmonds, a cotton handkerchief in his pocket, probably from Brooks Brothers; sunglasses by Lafont Paris lie on a napkin by his drink and a fairly nice attaché case from T. Anthony rests on an empty chair by our table. I’m wearing a two-button single-breasted chalk-striped wool-flannel suit, a multicolored candy-striped cotton shirt and a silk pocket square, all by Patrick Aubert, a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass and clear prescription eyeglasses with frames by Lafont Paris. (Ellis 87)

Except for two not very eloquent statements of judgment – great-looking, fairly nice – Bateman does not comment on the clothes his companions or he himself are wearing. Referring to their high class labels, however, indicates that for Bateman being expensive determines the fashionableness of a piece of clothing.

What is most striking about the descriptions of clothing is the fact that, despite the minute detail that is used to mention every single item in connection with its designer, the readers never know exactly what the outfits of the characters look like. Bateman never mentions colors, so that it is impossible to imagine how he and his friends look – contrary to the descriptions of clothes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. James Annesley, in his book Blank Fictions, comments on this issue: “Even in The Great Gatsby (1926), a novel that seems to prefigure Ellis’s interest in the relationship between capitalism and superficiality, commodities don’t play such a central role. Gatsby is, it’s true, known by what he owns, but still Fitzgerald chooses to describe those possessions rather than label them” (93). In Fitzgerald’s novel, one can find passages where the narrator Nick Carraway describes what Gatsby’s clothes look like. He mentions how Gatsby slaps “the knee of his caramel-coloured suit” (Fitzgerald 70) or that he is dressed “in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-coloured tie” (Fitzgerald 90-91) when about to meet Daisy. The passage in which Gatsby shows his shirts to Daisy comes closest to Bateman’s descriptions, but contrary to American Psycho the readers get an idea of what the shirts look like: “shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel . . . shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue” (Fitzgerald 99).

Fitzgerald’s narrator makes a point of describing Gatsby’s clothes, whereas Ellis is more interested in the 1980s obsession with brand names, or as Annesley puts it:

Where Fitzgerald seems coy about brand and product identity, even though his novel is very obviously concerned with capitalism and consumerism, Ellis produces a style that is ‘commodity-heavy’. Size, colour, impression and details are all sidelined in a narrative that prefers to use the maker’s name to create the desired effects. (94)

Bateman does not describe outfits by using adjectives but by reciting their brands. His choice of words is more suitable for photograph captions in fashion magazines than for a novel. As, however, his narrative is not illustrated by pictures, the readers might be confused by Bateman’s preference for stating labels and brand names only. Thus, a prominent part of the characters’ outfits escapes the readers because they do not know what they look like. This is exactly the opposite from what written descriptions in fashion magazines are supposed to do. If such a magazine only had pictures in it, the person perusing it would not have a more detailed knowledge of fashion than before looking at the magazine. It is the written description that makes the readers understand why this particular piece of clothing is fashionable: “En somme, la fin propre de la description est de diriger la connaissance immédiate et diffuse du vêtement-image, par une connaisance médiate et spécifique de la Mode” (Barthes 27).

Bateman’s inability to convey a mental picture of the outfits the characters wear is reflected on the characters themselves. They are defined by their fashionable appearances alone. The women are always beautiful, the men are always handsome. If they are not, they do not belong to Bateman’s circle of friends. But none of them have any distinguishing features. The women usually look like this: “big tits, blonde, great ass, high heels” (Ellis 30), the men are always tanned and have slicked-back hair. This is the reason why different characters constantly mistake each other[5]. But it is not only that the characters all look the same, they do not seem to have any distinguishing personalities either. They all have more or less the same jobs and the same hobbies, they never talk about anything personal or about their feelings. They stay as anonymous as their clothes because Bateman does not provide any insight into their personalities. Fashion, however, is not an appropriate character trait. On the contrary, Barthes asserts that the only connotation fashion has is its fashionableness. Since both “ensembles A” and “ensembles B” are arbitrary, fashion in itself is, all in all, devoid of any meaning, which makes the characters meaningless as well: “sans contenu, elle deviant alors le spectacle que les hommes se donnent à eux-mêmes du pouvoir qu’ils ont de faire signifier l’insignifiant; elle apparaît ainsi alors comme une forme exemplaire de l’acte général de signification . . .” (Barthes 287). The art of fashion lies in the fact that people invest meaning in it, although it is not really there.

2.1.2. The Emptiness of Fashion

The question remains if it is actually possible to make sense of written descriptions of clothing. According to Barthes, it is not. At least not in the sense that these descriptions are useful in any way: “Il faut bien voir que d’un point de vue pratique, la description d’un vêtement de Mode ne sert à rien. . . . La fin . . . du vêtement écrit semble purement réflexive: le vêtement semble se dire, se renvoyer à lui-même, enfermé dans une sorte de tautologie” (Barthes 27). The lengthy passages when Bateman describes the clothes of his peers are also “purement réflexive,” self-reflexive. He does not offer any interpretation at all. The fact that he makes a statement about a particular outfit is proof for its fashionableness.

What Barthes says is that fashion does not possess any meaning at all, because “les énoncés de Mode . . . ne parlent que du vêtement” (Barthes 286-87), at least in the case of “ensembles B.” Its only right of existence is the fact that it is fashionable. This makes it purely tautological indeed:

la Mode ne peut se définir que par elle-même, car la Mode n’est qu’un vêtement et le vêtement de Mode n’est jamais rien d’autre que ce que la Mode en décide; ainsi s’établit, des signifiants au signifié, un procès purement réflexif, au cours duquel le signifié est en quelque sorte vidé de tout contenu sans cependant rien perdre de sa force de désignation: ce procès constitue le vêtement en signifiant de quelque chose qui n’est pourtant rien d’autre que cette constitution même. (Barthes 287)

What does this say about Patrick Bateman, who makes such a point of always being fashionably dressed? The desire to create meaning is inherent in wearing fashionable clothes. Otherwise fashion would not exist and people would dress in purely pragmatic garments. However, since in Barthes’ terms fashion is meaningless, a self-definition through fashion can only fail. The way Bateman’s character is constructed confirms this view. He wants to convey an image of himself with his clothing, if only the image of a wealthy and successful yuppie. If his clothes, however, only reflect on themselves and if he dresses the way he does to convey an image of himself, it follows that this image reflects on itself without conveying any meaning at all. This makes Bateman as devoid of meaning as the clothes he wears. He says so himself towards the end of the book: “there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory . . . I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being” (Ellis 376-77). Hanjo Berressem interprets this statement as proof for Bateman belonging to a group of “borderline criminals” (286): “Even the really bad guys are no longer really evil; they are curiously indifferent, hollow men” (286). Berressem’s argument is that characters such as Bateman can be seen as suffering from a personality disorder called Borderline Syndrome. The fact that Ellis called his novel American Psycho is a clue that Bateman does suffer from some sort of psychological disorder. Looking at Bateman as a borderline patient entails some interesting results, which I want to explore in more detail now and in the close reading sections.

The Borderline Syndrome is “a pathological condition that has its roots in the inability to create an inner self and which is, as such, related to a failure of the ego – the agency that creates the image the individual has of itself. . . . It also denotes a psychic state that is defined by a fundamental inability to separate between the inside and the outside” (Berressem 274). This means that borderline patients do not have a sense of self, and without this they cannot see themselves in relation to the outside world. Since people suffering from this condition cannot develop any feelings toward themselves, they also cannot develop feelings for other people. “The reason for the emotional emptiness or flatness of the borderline patient is that he lives on the borderline between inside and outside, both of which are experienced as being similarly empty” (Berressem 277). Taking this notion to an extreme, Bateman does express something with the clothes he wears: He conveys exactly that feeling of emptiness which is inherent in both his own personality and in fashion as such. But even understanding this, as he apparently does at the end of the book during the confession of his viciousness, does not help because “there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling” (Ellis 377).

What goes along with this lack of self are “feelings of deep alienation” (Berressem 276). Without a properly developed ego, there can be no feeling of belonging, so this alienation does not only exist between the different characters but also within the character of Patrick Bateman himself. This becomes obvious in a puzzling statement about his choice of outfit: “I’m wearing a tuxedo for no apparent reason” (Ellis 167). The fact that he mentions wearing a tuxedo “for no apparent reason” implies that usually he wears his clothes for apparent reasons. But Bateman fails to communicate these reasons, thereby showing that he has lost touch with himself and with the world around him. Since he cannot identify an occasion for which he would need the tuxedo in order to fit in, the reason he usually has for wearing a particular outfit – conveying a suitable image of himself – is invalid. In this situation he fails to create an image reflecting his identity. Furthermore, the alienation between the characters in American Psycho manifests itself in the lack of interest for each other. Bateman does not care about the personalities of his peers – as long as they are immaculately dressed. Instead, clothing defines the relationship between Bateman and his friends. He associates himself with those who dress like him because it means that they have the same status in life. It does not matter whether they get along. In fact, they do not even really know each other. They never talk about their personal lives. Their conversational topics are restricted to fashion rules, restaurants, and girls.[6] Bateman’s friends belong in the same context as his clothing. They function as a decoration, thereby helping him to construct an image of himself.

Ironically, a disorder like the Borderline Syndrome is, according to Berressem, intricately connected with consumerism:

Because he is a mere filter of cultural images and because none of the products he buys can succeed in making him whole, the borderline patient is a perfect consumer. Like his body, which is never really his own, the products he buys never become a part of him, so that he never has enough. . . . Like Patrick Bateman in Brett[7] Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, the borderline patient is a perfect imitator of ready-made cultural images; a connoisseur of brand names, fashion-images and -dictates. (283)

By clothing his body in expensive garments and surrounding it with exclusive furniture, Bateman – seen in this light – is trying to grasp a self which is not there. But he is caught in a vicious cycle because buying more and more commodities only increases the seriousness of his condition. He tries to invest his life with meaning by buying clothes, but as – according to Barthes – fashion is devoid of meaning, he only increases his own lack of meaning.

2.2. Violence

In the previous sections I have shown how Patrick Bateman talks about fashion. His discourse on fashion and his personality are closely linked. Now I will turn to Bateman’s crimes, because – as I will show – his behavior is very much influenced by his understanding of fashion.

2.2.1. Torturing the Poor

When I say that Bateman’s way of talking about clothes resembles the way fashion is described in fashion magazines, then this is only true for the clothes of his peers, the men and women he works, dines and goes out with. It does not escape Bateman’s notice, however, that even these people are occasionally badly dressed, as a scene in a restaurant called Deck Chairs shows:

Someone who looks like Forrest Atwater – slicked-back blond hair, nonprescription redwood-framed glasses, Armani suit with suspenders – is sitting with Caroline Baker, an investment banker at Drexel, maybe, and she doesn’t look too good. She needs more makeup, the Ralph Lauren tweed outfit is too severe. They’re at a mediocre table up front by the bar. (Ellis 94)

Atwater and his date seem to have done everything right by wearing expensive designer clothes, but still they do not deserve to be seated at a good table. The passage suggests that the reason for this is Caroline’s severe outfit and lack of makeup. Apparently, Bateman considers her as not quite up to standards and it seems a perfectly adequate punishment for the couple to sit at – in his eyes – a mediocre table. In a world where all that counts is to get good seats in a restaurant this can be considered a harsh rebuke.

The case is very different when someone from a lower social class is concerned. Bateman’s reactions reach from astonishment about the clerk in the video store, “She’s actually wearing a baggy, nondescript sweater – definitely not designer” (Ellis 112), to disgust and rage when he encounters the homeless man Al. For Bateman everything someone wears is a fashion statement, as I will prove in a discussion of Al’s mutilation. He does not understand how fashion develops. In Système de la Mode Barthes explains this process, paying special attention to the relation of two factors – the factor of wear and tear and the factor of buying:

Pour le vêtement porté, la Mode peut en effet se définir par le rapport de deux rythmes: un rythme d’usure (u), constitué par le temps naturel de renouvellement d’une pièce ou d’un trousseau, sur le plan exclusif des besoins matériels; et un rythme d’achat (a), constitué par le temps qui sépare deux achats de la même pièce ou du même trousseau. . . . Si u = a, si le vêtement s’achète pour autant qu’il s’use, il n’y a pas de Mode; si u > a, si le vêtement s’use plus qu’il ne s’achète, il y a paupérisation; si a > u, si l’on achète plus qu’on use, il y a Mode, et plus le rythme d’achat dépasse le rythme d’usure, plus la soumission à la Mode est forte. (299-300)

According to Barthes, fashion can only exist when there is no need for new clothes. As soon as there are enough clothes to choose from and enough money to buy them it becomes important which ones are fashionable and which are not. In short, clothes are a luxury. In contrast, when there is a real need for clothes, one has to wear what is available, making clothes a necessity. While Barthes talks about society as a whole, I want to make a distinction. Impoverishment or the creation of fashion do not have to affect all of society. It can exist side by side, as it does in reality and in the society of American Psycho. This makes it possible for Bateman to attend a glamorous party and come across Al on the same evening.

Bateman’s encounter with Al is one of the key scenes in the novel because it is the first graphically violent act the readers actually have to witness. Bateman has talked before about the murders he has committed or wants to commit but the readers never had to take part in it. Now, in the chapter “Tuesday” and almost out of nowhere, Bateman becomes a killer before the readers’ eyes.

The chapter starts, like most chapters, at a party. As always, Bateman describes what people are wearing, beginning with himself:

I’m wearing a wing-collar jacquard waistcoat by Kilgour, French & Stanbury from Barney’s, a silk bow tie from Saks, patent leather slip-ons by Baker-Benjes, antique diamond studs from Kentshire Galleries and a gray wool silk-lined coat with drop sleeves and a button-down collar by Luciano Soprani. An ostrich wallet from Bosca carries four hundred dollars cash in the back pocket of my black wool trousers. Instead of my Rolex I’m wearing a fourteen-karat gold watch from H. Stern. (Ellis 126)

Courtney, whom he runs into, is dressed in “a silk and cotton stretch-tulle bodywrap with jeweled lace pants” (Ellis 126) and Luis Carruthers is wearing “a cream-colored wool dinner jacket, wool trousers, a cotton shirt, and a silk glen-plaid cummerbund, all from Hugo Boss, a bow tie from Saks and a pocket square from Paul Stuart” (Ellis 127). Because Bateman does not want to deal with either Courtney or Luis, he leaves the building, and although he is invited to join a few others at dinner, he chooses not to accompany them and walks off.

Even before Bateman encounters Al he gives some clues as to why he becomes so enraged. His expensive watch has stopped, he passes drug-dealing black men, he is whistled and laughed at by homosexuals, he describes the dirty sidewalks (cf. Ellis 128). Then he sees the homeless man and one of the first things he notices are his clothes, which present a striking contrast to the clothes Bateman has just seen at the party or is himself wearing: “He’s dressed in some kind of tacky-looking lime green polyester pantsuit with washed-out Sergio Valente jeans worn over it (this season’s homeless person’s fashion statement) along with a ripped orange and brown V-neck sweater stained with what looks like burgundy wine” (Ellis 129). The blatantly obvious irony in the line “this season’s homeless person’s fashion statement” is an attempt to transfer Al’s world into Bateman’s own world where fashion statements matter. For Bateman, there is nothing worse than to be out of fashion because being out of fashion for him means being out of identity, as explained in the previous section. He assumes that other people as well as himself use clothes to create an image of themselves. Consequently, he thinks that Al makes a statement with his choice of clothing. The words “tacky-looking” and the emphasis on over draw attention to the fact that this statement, however, is far from the function and meaning Bateman himself assigns to clothes. The passage shows that Bateman is so wrapped up in the way he sees the world that he cannot recognize other people’s ways of life. He does not connect any kind of functionality with clothing. It becomes obvious that Bateman does not understand that what the homeless man is wearing is all he has. Putting on two pairs of pants on top of each other is not a fashion statement but an attempt to stay warm and to make sure his clothes will not be stolen from him. In other words, Al needs these two pairs of pants. He cannot afford to care about their fashionableness and consequently does not make a fashion statement. But even if Bateman understood this fact of a homeless person’s life, he would not care. What a person’s clothes look like and what they say about their owner is all that matters to him, as this is for him what creates identities – other people’s as well as his own. And what Al’s clothes say about him condemns him to torture.


[1] “Postmoderne” (P.) ist die Bezeichnung für die kulturgeschichtliche Periode nach der Moderne bzw. für ästhetisch-philosophische Ansätze und kulturelle Konfigurationen dieser Zeit. Meist gelten die künstlerischen, politischen und medialen Umbrüche der 1960er Jahre in den USA als Ausgangspunkt für die P. (Mayer 543).

[2] “Even before publication, the book made waves when Simon and Schuster, the publishers of his first two novels, decided to terminate the contract. Alarmed by what they saw as the novel’s disturbing and distasteful subject matter, they refused to publish . . . these events provided a mere prelude to the outrage that greeted the publication of the book itself . . . (Annesley 11).

[3] See section 2.2.1.

[4] Ferdinand de Saussure established the distinction between signifier and signified, “between the form of a linguistic sign and its content, wherein both aspects are of a mental nature and the relation between these two sides of the . . . sign is arbitrary” (Bussmann 436).

[5] The climax of this motif is reached in the chapter “New Club” (Ellis 386-389), when Bateman runs into someone called Harold Carnes, on whose answering machine he confessed the murder of Paul Owen. Carnes tells him that only a few days ago he had dinner with Owen in London. However, this is no proof that Owen is still alive because Carnes mistakes Bateman for a man called Davis.

[6] The three-way phone conversation between Bateman and two of his friends in the chapter “Another Night” (Ellis 309-25), is a good example.

[7] Berressem spells Ellis’s first name “Brett.” The correct spelling is Bret.

Excerpt out of 82 pages


Clothing and Its Connotations in Postmodern American Fiction
A Discussion of Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho", William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" and Nicholson Baker's "A Box of Matches"
University of Göttingen
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Clothing, Connotations, Postmodern, American, Fiction
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Magistra Artium Theresa Wenzel (Author), 2007, Clothing and Its Connotations in Postmodern American Fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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